Video from dialogue meeting at The Norwegian Academy of Music 21.11.2013. Participants are Dai Fujikura, Christian Eggen and members of The reflective musician research group.

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Diamond Dust

Diamond Dust


Getting ready for the premiere of a piano concerto is a collective process. I have learned that the soloist faces expectations, both tacit and overt, about how she should play the music and otherwise conduct herself. A mythology has grown up around the role of soloists in piano concerti, and the most famous of them often begin as child prodigies.


Some soloists want to avoid getting into altercations with the orchestra when they play. Misha Dichter, himself a well-known concert pianist, describes the cooperation with conductor Eugene Ormandy in an interview: ‘He was like your custom Hong Kong tailor: one rehearsal, I walk on stage, and it was like my custom-made suit’  (Itkin, 2014: 13). As a performer of contemporary music, however, it is never quite as Dichter describes, in my experience at least. Preparing performances of new piano concerti is a slow, fragile process where verbal communication between the people involved is an absolute requirement right up until the performance of the work.


Sometimes I have noticed that I have failed to meet other people’s expectations of me as a soloist. Comments like ‘Play more like a soloist, be freer!’; ‘Be more like a diva!’; ‘You must flirt!’; ‘You should keep them waiting, and theeeen: give them juice!’; ‘Think of the orchestra as a dress you are wearing.’ all say something about how others want me to play and behave. But the comments are vague. Should I play more loudly than the rest, or should I allow more rubato than them? Should I think of the orchestra as an accompanist to me? And why do I have to flirt? Just as significantly, why should it seem appropriate to use so much specifically feminine imagery in this advice (diva, flirt, dress)? Would a male soloist be given similar advice but in equally gendered terms (maybe ‘seduce’ rather than ‘flirt’) and would the nuances of gender make a difference?

At times, it still seems as though, as a female soloist, I represent a transgression from the norm and one that distracts from my artistic role. One reviewer wrote after hearing me perform Lachenmann’s piano concerto Ausklang:


Another issue is the extent to which what you hear can be isolated from and unaffected by what you see. With a beautiful female pianist plucking at the strings, pulling red plastic cups over the keys and slapping the piano with the palms of her hands and a hammer, it is impossible not to register the visual impressions. But it is hardly the composer’s intention that the visual impressions should make such an impact. (Helbekkmo, 2010: 50, my translation)

This reviewer’s expectations were not fulfilled. According to him, my very presence as a ‘beautiful female pianist’ stood in the way of a good performance. The reviewer’s paradigm was still that of the male soloist, and the cognitive dissonance between this paradigm and what he saw seems to have interfered with his capacity to focus on the sounds produced. One might, of course, ask whether and why a male performer performing these unusual compositional commands in relation to the instrument would be any less arresting or distracting. Moreover, it is open to debate whether or not the arresting visual aspect of the actions which Lachenmann regularly asks of his performers is part of his intention; live performances of Lachenmann’s works are almost always pieces of visual theatre as well as auditory events. Again, gender stereotypes seem to be at play. For example, many female cellists play his solo work for that instrument, Pression, but because we are familiar with the paradigm of the female cellist (and, arguably, because a solo work does not involve the power-play of a concerto with its soloist/orchestra/conductor; the female soloist being seen as the composer’s ‘muse’, inside her world of empathic communication with the music), the same cognitive dissonance between image and sound may not be produced in this instance.


Finding out how the other participants expect me to play and behave as a soloist might enhance the general understanding of my role and, from there, open the doors to making improvements and changes concerning the audible result. At the same time, it is important that I do not merely adapt what I do to accommodate attitudes that may not be valid. As an essential marker, I need to be neither more nor less flexible, diplomatic and responsive than a male soloist would be. I formed the following question


What do the others people involved expect of my role as a soloist in new piano concerti and how are these expectations communicated?

It is interesting to study how others’ expectations of me find their way into the scores given to me, and into the communication between the people involved. Work on the piano concerto Diamond Dust demonstrates a classic situation in which communication and balance between the roles got off to a good start but later was undermined in a way that had consequences for the performance. In this case, arguably, it was I who responded to a situation of pressure by adopting avoidance strategies where a male soloist might have been more direct and up-front with the composer about the difficulties he was encountering.


The process

The composer Dai Fujikura and I were in touch by e-mail from the very first beginnings of the composition process. The composer wanted a close relationship with me since I would be premiering his new piano concerto. He also wanted audio and video recordings of me playing at concerts and on CDs. He asked what music I liked and wondered how I was as a person. Having considerable experience of commissions, his interest, I felt, seemed very positive and I looked forward to getting a work created precisely around my skills and resources.


Fujikura wanted me to see elements of the composition as it evolved, to let me familiarise myself with the aesthetics. He wrote about his thoughts, ideas and the background material for the piano concerto. He asked me if I would not mind sending him recorded snippets from the rehearsals after I had received the score so that we could discuss the music during my rehearsal process too. We worked on arranging an initial workshop with the whole ensemble so that changes could be incorporated in the score; we were both experienced with world premieres and acutely aware of how little time there usually is to rehearse a piece such as this. Our contact with each other in my opinion was open and constructive.


The solo part arrived, and I eagerly threw myself at the score. When you sit with an entirely new score, the realisation that this is the first time the music will be heard anywhere is magical. But unfortunately, my happiness was short-lived. I was not getting the hang of the rapid passage towards the end of the concerto.

In my conception of this particular section, it was supposed to sound ‘funky’ and rhythmically stable. Towards the end of the concerto, the percussionists and pianist play material that is interwoven or entangled. The section reminded me of the Double Concerto by Unsuk Chin (2003) which I had played the same spring, where percussion and piano complement each other and reflect each other’s percussive qualities. As I worked on getting up to the indicated tempo in Diamond Dust, the section sounded less and less funky, my body locked up and my playing sounded rigid and inflexible. The tempo needed to make it sound ‘funky’ was around 110 BPM, that is, only 76 percent of the specified tempo. Fujikura asked for more recordings of me practising. He wanted to hear what the piece was beginning to sound like. But as I practised I felt I was not getting the desired result, and I was afraid to send audio clips to him. My body began aching. Communication stalled.

Hommage à Frank Cox

The pain in my body was the same I had felt while working on the trio Hommage à Frank Cox by Claus Steffen Mahnkopf (2006).  This work was premiered with my colleagues in asamisimasa, percussionist Håkon Stene and guitarist Anders Førisdal, in 2009, and recorded in May of 2013, the same year seeing the premiere of Diamond Dust. 1 The instrumental writing in Mahnkopf’s Hommage is extremely challenging, pushing the three musicians towards the limits of instrumental virtuosity. There had been several aborted attempts at playing the work between its completion in 2006 and the premiere in 2009. At the time of the premiere, the ensemble was rather shameful about the whole affair, to the point of not informing the composer about the performance until several months later. Large sections of the piano part are based on rapid figures, which, if played at the specified tempo, were nearly beyond my reach. Having previously played works like Xenakis’ Mists and Ferneyhough’s Opus contra naturam I am not unacquainted with, or hostile towards, intricate and complex piano writing. However, with the Manhkopf piece, I felt the complexity of the material was pushing me beyond my abilities in a way that was counter-productive, resulting in severe tension and pain in the neck and the upper part of my back. Somewhat shamefully I decided to ask Mahnkopf to rework the material, as to reduce the density of certain polyphonic passages. His response was to suggest that I take certain pitches at my discretion, nonetheless leaving the rhythmic structure intact.

For me this response consolidated my feelings of shame connected to feeling inadequate as a pianist; the revision was neither easier to read nor did it provide any strain relief. With regards to the complexity of the material Førisdal and Stene also faced a similar situation. After a few semi-successful concert performances of the work, we decided that a proper interpretation could only be realised in the recording studio, which would allow us to disregard the psychological and physical strains and other practicalities of concert performance completely. This latter point provided particular relief for the guitarist, whose part asks for tricky electronic manipulation of the guitar signal. We recorded the solo sections which make up most of the work in numerous takes that were meticulously edited, realising the musical material to our best abilities – including not only abilities of instrumental performance, but also of digital editing and mixing – and exploring the facilities of a modern recording studio in ways usually regarded with deep suspicion in classical music circles. In the resulting recording, not only were all the notes in place for the first time, but we also decided on mixing the work so that even the minutest details of articulation were brought forth and allowed to shine. The result is a truly ‘larger-than-life performance.' The recording proved more than satisfactory for Mahnkopf, who after his initial misgivings about our recording approach, exclaimed in an e-mail that for the first time in his life he had finally heard his music as he had wanted it to sound. With that recording, we had finally proved our worth.

A bond of trust 

In a situation like this, composers must come to realise what kind of strain the performers suffer, the degree of stress involved, and the level of risk, on the part of the performer, regarding physical injuries. One could certainly ask of the composer to be forthcoming and enter into a dialogue with performers concerning the challenges involved rather than asking the performer to return shamefully to the drawing board. Commissioning a new work establishes a bond of trust between performer and composer, a bond where the performer is usually in a subordinate role submissive to the musical text. However, in certain situations, the effort simply seems too big concerning the result and costs involved. The solution in the case of Mahnkopf’s Hommage of recording the work in a particular way took away the psychological stress of the performance situation. The recording sessions were conducted in a joyful and creative atmosphere free from stress, and the physical pain associated with this work was gone. And not only that, but the artistic result was also something we could all be proud of, after a seven-year-long struggle. Now, what does this bring to the discussion of my collaboration with Fujikura and the pain and shame experienced when working on this piece before the first performance?

I will never know what Fujikura would have said if I had sent him the sound clips of me practising the rapid passages that conclude Diamond Dust. In retrospect, I know how I could have given him the rehearsal clips because, after its premiere, I knew the entire work and could have argued by the concerto’s total aural impression. At this point, I would have proved my worth and could have faced Fujikura without shame. But my insecurity was not only related to certain extremely challenging passages, but also due to other factors concerning the score that made me feel ‘controlled’ by the composer. In some places, three different dynamic indications plus various articulation signs were placed on the same beat of the bar

Although Fujikura urged me to play “freely”, rubato, by noting ‘Più mosso, tempo rubato (follow the pianist)’ in the score, it was still a challenge to play ‘freely’ given the number of details in the scores.

The solution was found in the course of a meeting I organised two days before the premiere under the aegis of the research group The reflective musician. 2 At the meeting we discussed our expectations of each other during the process. The composer said he always wrote tempi 20 per cent faster than he wanted because, in his experience, if he wrote BPM 144, the musicians would play only BPM 112. He had to indicate a higher tempo because he expected musicians not to play fast enough. The composer said: ‘I have never experienced any musicians taking the composer’s tempo seriously!’ Christian Eggen, the conductor, and I were shocked, and Eggen said somewhat heatedly: ‘This is not the way I work!’  I explained that if the tempo indication were too high, it would likely affect many aspects of my practising and how I planned my playing techniques (fingering, articulation, etc.) with the specified tempo as the goal. Too high an indicated tempo was thus likely to hurt the quality of the performance as it would result in me calibrating my technique towards an unwanted result.

The meeting produced several useful insights. It turned out that because of the extremely tight rehearsal schedule for new works, composers would have to intervene, often more than once, to ensure an at least partly successful performance, such as indicating exaggeratedly high tempos. Fujikura told us about premieres he’d had in England where the opportunities to work on the piece were even tighter than in Norway; often, he claimed, there is only an hour’s rehearsal time for an entirely new work. The composer had to tailor the different instruments or voices, often simplifying the music to fit the allotted time span. The music suffers because the same rehearsal constraints are applied to old and new works.

The meeting also helped me understand better the conductor’s approach. Eggen said he had no particular artistic conception or objectives before he stood on the rostrum and had a chance of familiarising himself with the aural landscape. If the music was easy to put together, it was time enough to ‘make art.' Now, when the project is complete, the majority of conductors involved in the project, I have found, take the same approach. They are not so much concerned with exploring the aesthetics before the first rehearsal because they need to hear the material played before starting to work on it. Their role is to get the music to hang together and the musicians to come in at the right point in the score. Artistic work of a more general nature only takes place when the framework makes it possible; if that is, there is enough time.

Now, this says something as well about my position as soloist in a new piano concerto. On the first run-through, I will often be the only musician who has worked on the material for an extended period and conversed with the composer. I will often be the only musician who has acquired an aesthetic conception of how music should sound based on my part in it and work on the score. The way I play becomes one of the first auditory references the other musicians can relate to in work. But it comes with a great responsibility.

Premiere of Diamond Dust by Dai Fujikura. Oslo Sinfonietta, Christian Eggen, and Ellen Ugelvik. Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, 23.11.2013. Recording by BBC 3 radio. Video by Matt Hargraves.

What I learned during the meeting gave me the confidence to loosen up my playing at the premiere and to respond to how and what the others were playing when I was not held back by the iron grip of the tempo. The way much of the material in Diamond Dust is organised, one group of instruments gets to build a carpet of sound, and then the soloist or other instruments materialise out of this soundscape, transforming it seamlessly. At the premiere I felt I could experiment during these sections, placing myself above or below regarding dynamics, and seeking to imitate the tone and articulation of the others or take on the role of leader of a section, inviting the others to react to what I played. The composer responded positively in an e-mail to the way I had explored the interface between playing solo as leader but also from a more attentive position, like a chamber musician: ‘you were the perfect combination of pianist (and this is rare), you were utterly the soloist, AND wonderful ensemble player, which was wonderful to see between you and Christian [Eggen] and the percussionist.’

Premiere of Diamond Dust by Dai Fujikura. Oslo Sinfonietta, Christian Eggen, and Ellen Ugelvik. Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, 23.11.2013. Recording by BBC 3 radio. Video by Matt Hargraves.

Working together 

It is my impression that composers and performers of contemporary music are willing to work together and talk things over, but that they find it difficult to come up with adequate words and methods. The fact that the music is so important to us means that the friction and heat produced during the processes can have some interesting results. Our classical music education does not give us many tools to allow us to communicate in the different ways I have found necessary when communicating with living composers about new music. Barbara Lüeneburg writes:

The training of specific, professional communication skills in social interaction, open-minded listening and a positive and honest evaluation process are not usually an explicit part of our professional education. It is difficult enough in chamber music to find clear and helpful ways to criticise and to negotiate the undercurrents of self-confidence, artistic egos, and issues of equality and authority; in the relation between composer and performer unquestioned, traditional hierarchical role models and task areas determine the position of power in the relationship and the kind and level of criticism that is considered appropriate.

To enable equal participation in any collaboration, performer and composer should have comparable skill levels in their domain to feel safe, and in autonomy and authority. Composers and performers should also consider basic strategies and rules of teamwork; to discuss team norms, structures and rules might, at first sight, seem rather corporate to artists, but in practice, it facilitates more efficient and productive work. (Lüeneburg, 2013: 37)

Making strategies to enable clearer forms of collaboration seems like a good idea when attempting to meet the expectations we have of each other during the process. All the same, it is often the case that our understanding comes from the experience. Jens E. Kjeldsen describes the life cycle of rhetorical situations like this:

Rhetorical situations arise, grow and mature until a rhetorical response is most appropriate. The mature rhetorical situation may last for a few seconds. And it can last for several years, even millennia, as in religious rituals or philosophy. If one speaker fails to create an appropriate rhetorical response when the time is ripe, the situation will deteriorate and degenerate until the urgent problem can no longer be solved by rhetoric. At that point, the rhetorical situation will disintegrate and disappear. We’ve probably all had the experience of not being able to find the right response to a situation. And afterwards, when we get to think about what we should have answered, it’s too late. In this sense, rhetorical situations have a life cycle consisting of four possible stages: 1) origin; 2) maturity; 3) degradation; and 4) disintegration. (Kjeldsen, 2006:89-90, my translation).


a) Learn to recognise power structures and discriminatory signs and language. As a soloist, you will be working alongside new partners every time, and it is important to understand why and how the others involved conduct themselves and what they expect of you as the soloist on the basis of the music you will be performing and the tight rehearsal constraints. Be sensitive to gender stereotyping (your own, as well as that of others) and, wherever possible, act in ways that neutralise this. There are enough inter-personal challenges associated with bringing a new work to performance readiness irrespective of the genders of those involved. Try to focus on these and on the (usually) safe assumption that everyone is at least united by a common desire to do the maximum justice to the work, whatever their personal fragilities, anxieties or misgivings.

b) Look for ways to express yourself about this new artistic collaboration so as to create a climate that encourages fruitful participation. Here, elements of Liz Lerman’s Critical Response Project with its techniques of giving feedback might prove useful, and elements of post-heroic leadership with shared decision-making and teamwork are keywords.

c) Be aware that you as soloist may be the only person present who knows the work’s aesthetics before the first rehearsal. How you play and express yourself about your playing can have a significant impact on how the piece ultimately sounds, since your playing is the other players’ first reference to the aural landscape of the work. (On first impressions, see Kahneman (2013)

d) Be aware that the existing structures may dampen the originality and expression of the music itself. Be active in suggesting alternative ways of working to make sure opportunities to experiment and to ensure the best possible conditions for new work.

© Ellen Kristine Ugelvik | go to top

Rehearsing the solo part, backstage in Grieghallen before the concert with Ausklang. 

Photo: Vegard Valde

Hommage  à Frank Cox by Claus-Steffen Mahnkopf. Anders Førisdal, guitar, Håkon M Stene, percussion, Ellen Ugelvik, piano. Recorded at the Norwegian Academy of Music 2013.

Ellen Ugelvik | Pianist